From a distance, it almost looked like snow.
Up close, it was an unimaginable amount of small Styrofoam pieces—or more accurately,
polystyrene. Early this spring, flood waters rushed through the emergency spillway of the Clearwater Lake Dam and carved a 50 to 70-foot deep path through a long forgotten, pre-regulation landfill.
Most of the trash was from what you would take for a camping trip: cans, wrappers, egg cartons, and other small items. An overwhelming amount of this trash was polystyrene packaging; it was mixed with organic matter and formed into a huge mound.
On the weekend of October 14th, over 30 Stream Teamers united as the League of Watershed Guardians (Team 5168) tackled the mound and the river. We had all been on big cleanups before; hauled the really heavy stuff like tractor tires, appliances, boats, and the occasional RV. This was different; it was tiny, light, and most of the pieces were about the size of a small tree leaf. However, polystyrene doesn’t compost and go away. We raked, sifted, and picked piece-by-piece to remove about 15 cubic yards of the stuff. We found dated egg cartons that were over 40 years old and still no real decay; it’s hard to know how long they would last if left alone.
Removing polystyrene wasn’t the only victory that weekend. We removed about 80 cubic yards of trash, several channel markers, a pedestrian bridge, several hundred pounds of scrap and yes, a few dozen tires. Fred Esser, acting operations manager of the Clearwater office of the US Corps of Engineers (USCOE), provided equipment, dumpsters, supplies,
and staff along with the Department of Conservation and the Department of Natural Resources. Most impressive was to see Fred lead the charge and jump in alongside the rest of us. His commitment is apparent— he is definitely one of us and truly cares about our waterways and the environment.
This was without doubt, a hard-working weekend and one of the most gratifying cleanups yet. We shared a pig roast and a bonfire; while celebrating our hard
work, we began planning our next cleanup of the Black River. I was happy to return home and have dinner out with my wife. When we finished, the waitress brought
us our leftovers in two white, polystyrene boxes.
We still have a long way to go.
Doug Geist, President League of Watershed Guardians